Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold (sci-fi)

This one of many books I'm reading on my Kindle

This is the first in a series of award-winning sci-fi books. Three other books in the series have won the Hugo Award, the highest honor in sci-fi. That means, if you are into sci-fi, the series is a "must read". This book is also a "trashy romance", so even if you don't like sci-fi, you might find something to like in it.

But neither is the reason I recommend this book. Instead, I recommend it because it's "crafted". Most fiction is written quickly, without little thought about the art and craft of writing. Most fiction is easy, and stupid; I think this book is a bit smarter.

To begin with, there is the well-developed backstory. While this is the first novel in the series, you get the impression that there it's more like the tenth. It feels like there are nine other novels in the series that have led to this point.

The backstory is based on the typical sci-fi physics of "wormholes", which allow spaceships to take a short cut from one solar system to the next. Mankind has spread out, jumping through wormhole to wormhole, colonizing the galaxy. Sci-fi writers love wormholes because they create a geography to the universe. In much the same way as mountains and rivers created natural boundaries for countries on Earth, wormholes dictate the boundaries between galactic empires.

Imagine a planet whose wormhole disappears. Now alone, cut off from the rest of humanity, it falls back into savagery. Then, a hundred years later, a new wormhole is found, reconnecting it back to galactic civilization. There is now a conflict between the "old ways" and the "new ways".

That would be a fascinating story, but one that McMaster-Bujold doesn't tell. Instead, her stories take place a generation later. This is just the backstory, one that is slowly told over the course of the entire series. The author rivals such stories as Dune and Star Wars with incredible well thought-out backstories.

The second thing I like best about this series is the conflict between good and evil. In most books, this is simple. Take the Harry Potter series, for example. Harry is the protagonist, the "good guy" in the books. But what precisely makes him good? He breaks rules, acts poorly toward people he doesn't like, and doesn't do anything of merit other than resist the "bad guys". He doesn't stand up for any principle other than he is in the "in" group, fighting the "out" group. He is the "good guy" simply because the stories are told from his viewpoint.

In the stories by McMaster-Bujold, however, the conflict between good and evil is much more complex. Each character is given its own private backstory, principles they live buy. The characters struggle to follow those principles. There is no real "bad guy". One character is a murderer and a rapist, but he is shown in a sympathetic light. If anything, he is one of the "good guys" in the story.

And that is the origin of the word "honor" in the book's title. The characters are thrown into impossible situations where all choices are bad, but some choices are "honorable". Certainly, we like the protagonists in the story, but we are under no illusions that they are "good" - it's just that it's the decisions they have to make, given their character.


While books in this series have won awards, they don't make people's lists of the top sci-fi books of all time. I think that's because most sci-fi readers don't appreciate how well they have been crafted. They aren't the familiar "plot drive" or "setting driven" stories of sci-fi, but complex "character driven" novels.

My favorite stores are those with a complex backstory. I like imagining for myself what that story must be. In fact, I hate it when authors go back and flesh out that backstory. The prequels ruined the Star Wars for me. Likewise, Ann McCaffrey ruined her Pern series by fleshing out her backstory.

Maybe I'm just fooling myself, and it's just the trashy romance aspect of the story that attracts me. But I think this is one of the best crafted books in sci-fi, and I include it on my "top 10" list of favorite sci-fi books.

1 comment:

  1. Nice book review. Where is your "top 10 list of favorite sci-fi books"? I'd like to see it.